Songbird Gets a New Set of Wings

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Pioneers of the Inevitable, makers of Songbird, the open-source alternative to iTunes, has just secured a new round of financing, saving it from death and placing its platform more aggressively as a competitor to Apple’s venerable media player.

According to TechCrunch, Pioneers of the Inevitable’s $8 million in venture funding from Sequoia Capital and Atlas Ventures ran out earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, so too did its Founding CEO, Rob Lord. According to Michael Arrington, Lord’s departure left the company “…without a game plan.”

Now the company has a new CEO, Jerrell Jimerson, a big bag of cash (again from Atlas but not Sequoia, who backed-out of this round of funding) and, most importantly, a deal in the works with Phillips to include Songbird (or software based on Songbird) in no fewer than five million of its music players. (No, I didn’t know they still made music players, either. Seriously, do you know anyone with a Phillips music player?)

Sounds like, just maybe, they have a new game plan.

Songbird is, on the Mac at least, possibly the best free alternative media player to iTunes. And not just because it looks like iTunes, either. It’s fast, customisable and integrates well with online services such as 7digital Music Store, Flickr, YouTube, SHOUTcast Radio and Last.fm.

Mind you, it doesn’t yet manage CD ripping, and if you’re looking to play video files in a consistent and enjoyable manner, I recommend you look elsewhere (you can’t go wrong with VLC). And while not every single model of iPod in history is fully supported by the software (which is to say, it will work but it’s not guaranteed to work perfectly) the developers are “working on it” and offer links to various plugins that offer expanded compatibility.

At one time Songbird was important because it did what Apple’s iTunes could not; it offered freedom from digital rights managed nonsense. But now that iTunes Plus offers high(er) quality digital downloads free from DRM silliness, Songbird again must offer something more in order to be a viable — and attractive — alternative. And it does. You see, at its core Songbird is a web browser, based on none other than Mozilla code. It provides hooks into social networking services and popular online media sites. It offers easy expandability and added functionality from a huge open-source community of developers and enthusiasts. So it not only offers (almost) everything iTunes can offer, but it brings much more to the table.

All this added functionality isn’t new; but a distribution deal with a major consumer electronics manufacturer is new, and may be enough to give Songbird new wings. (You know I’d use that pun sooner or later, right?)

Even if the rumours are true and iTunes does get social (with Facebook and/or Twitter integration of some kind or another) it won’t be beating Songbird, it will only be taking one tentative step in the direction Songbird has already flown.

I won’t make any bold claims about Songbird being an iTunes killer — that’s just crazy-talk. The vast majority of iPod owners don’t care too much (if at all) if their media acquisition and management choices are artificially limited by Apple. They’re probably not even aware of it. I am aware of it, though still don’t care enough to want to migrate away from iTunes.

But with this new lease of life, and the promise of major mainstream distribution, Songbird is suddenly on my radar as an interesting, viable option.

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